The most easily missed person in the Christmas story is the last one mentioned—Anna.
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)
Where did the gift of Jesus, which led to the destruction of all evil and to a new heavens and earth, begin? With Anna in the temple praying. Of course, the gift of Jesus began from all eternity, and yet, it needed a human instrument, a conduit. Anna’s praying was one of the sparks that led to the incarnation: Anna praying in the Temple for eighty years (Luke 2:37) leads to => The “Spirit will come upon you” (Luke 1:35) => Jesus’s birth.
Anna is completely hidden from the important people. Jesus’s mother only met Anna after Jesus was born. So Mary only saw in retrospect the Spirit at work. Hidden warriors like Anna are usually discovered only in retrospect. When you meet a young person who has become a believer from a non-Christian background, it’s not uncommon to discover a praying grandmother behind the scenes.
All great movements of the kingdom begin just like this, low and slow, with hidden pray-ers who keep showing up to pray. Who pray when they don’t feel like it. Who pray when there is no change. Who pray when they are discouraged. They are continual in prayer and then they slowly add others pray-ers to join them.
What sustains people like Anna in praying is a sense of anticipation of what God might do though prayer. We call Anna’s waiting Advent. I was delighted when one of the pastors in a prayer cohort I was leading got the Advent bug. He wrote me six months after we were finished:
"Something changed in me during or through that cohort. Something clicked in a new way. I get excited about the “boringness” of praying for the same things again and again (low-level, no thrills farming work) to a God-who-hears—and then who does move the prayer stories forward. It’s like a surprise Christmas morning, getting to unwrap a forgotten present when he answers!"
What “clicked” for this pastor was faith. He saw how life worked. That sparked hope, which spilled over into the work of love (prayer). When faith is weak, you are gripped by some combination of cynicism or lethargy—the kissing cousins of unbelief. Not surprisingly, Anna and Simeon are both older—they understand life’s deep structures, that the good things in life are gifts, and prayer lies at the heart of God’s gift giving.
This pastor’s comparison with Christmas is apt, because Advent (waiting for the Christ-child) is the feel of prayer. It’s not passive waiting, as in hoping that my wife forgets about the job list, but anticipatory waiting.
Megan Hill exudes this same faith in her excellent book, Praying Together.
"Earlier this week, I met with two older women in my church. We discussed a few matters for prayer—a gospel podcast for Arab-speaking millennials, a paralyzed Christian sister, the labors of our pastor—and then we sat quietly. After a moment one of the women said, with a sparkle in her eyes, 'Sisters, are you ready?' Her enthusiasm stirred my heart. And, as if embarking on an epic adventure, we all smiled, straightened our shoulders, and began to pray together."
That “epic adventure” feel is why Paul and Silas pray and sing in prison. They are anticipating that the Spirit continuously re-enacts the resurrection of Jesus. The Spirit works through the earthquake, overturning the false narrative that Paul and Silas are troublemakers. Their 2-person praying team first transforms the prison, then the jailor, and finally the city of Philippi. When they had become powerless, they didn’t just survive, they thrived. Instead of being overcome by evil, they overcome evil with good.
Instead of being overcome by evil, they overcame evil with good.
As you wait in this Advent season – for Christmas, yes, but I’m sure in other areas of life too – I hope Anna’s story encourages you. May your waiting and praying sparkle with the certain hope of resurrection!
This blogpost is adapted from Paul’s book, A Praying Church.